Conformity and its Experimental Background

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

Following the events of WWII and the brutality associated with the Holocaust, serious questions were raised about the reality of the human mind and especially its relation to authority. Psychological studies were conducted to shed more light on the root of the atrocities inflicted by some people on their fellow human beings. The results of these studies changed the way we viewed ourselves and how we were related to the world. One of the first studies was conducted in 1951 by Solomon Asch.

The picture shows a 3D model of the brain or mind function.
The Second World War shifted the focus of psychological studies. (Image: Andrey_Kuzmin/Shutterstock)

Studies before Asch’s Experiments of Conformity

In 1951, the Polish psychologist Solomon Asch experimented to find out if people were able to act independently. His experiment wasn’t the first of its kind. These kinds of studies had been conducted from the beginning of the 20th century. For example, the president of the American Psychological Association, Edward Thorndike, believed that if people are told other experts or people prefer something, they will be more likely to lean toward that specific thing.

In that experiment, the test subjects expressed their opinions about a topic to one research assistant. Then, a second assistant asked them the same question after telling them that a celebrity or the subject’s friends had a different idea. This time, most of them changed their minds to fit the preference of the majority or that of the powerful people.

These results showed how a person can shape preferences or even behaviors.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Solomon Asch Tried to Dig Deeper

A stack of four books. One has 'Knowledge' written on its spine, another 'Behavior', another 'Psychology' and another 'Science'.
Solomon Asch, the Polish psychologist, studied conformity. (Image: alejandro dans neergaard/Shutterstock)

But for Asch, things were more serious and more profound. He wanted to see why this was the case. In a similar procedure, he put subjects and actors who pretended to be subjects, but were confederates working for the researcher, in a room. They were presented with two charts in front of the room, one with a single line in it, and the other with three lines. One of these lines was noticeably the same height as the line in the first chart. The subjects were supposed to identify that line.

They discussed the correct answer one by one, with the real subject being the last person to answer. The first three times, the subjects followed the confederates, who all answered correctly.

In the fourth round, the confederates gave the wrong answers. There were 18 sets of lines and of those, the confederates got 6 correct and 12 wrong by design.

Learn more about dangerous minds: extreme offenders.

The Findings of Asch’s Experiment

The final results indicated that 75% of the subjects followed the majority even if the majority was wrong. Another interesting finding was that no matter how the subjects responded, following the majority or setting themselves apart, they would continue to do so in the following stages.

The subjects who answered correctly also showed different patterns of behavior. Some of them were sure that they were right, although the task was too simple. Others were not that confident and thought they were factually wrong. They felt the task was so simple that others would be justified to see it differently. They deliberately misunderstood the task and gave incorrect answers because they felt it was important for the science and the researcher’s data.

3d illustration of many red arrows pointng to the left and a green one pointing to the right side of the image.
In Asch’s Experiment, the subjects followed the majority although they knew the majority was wrong. (Image: Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock)

Among those who gave the wrong answers, some believed that they couldn’t be right while the majority was wrong. They, too, didn’t want to spoil the data because the majority was right no matter what the truth was. Either that or they didn’t want to be different from the majority.

Learn more about pushing good people to do bad things.

The Worrying Part of the Findings

Of those who answered incorrectly, there was another group whose reactions were worrying for Asch. He observed that they saw their differences from the majority as being a kind of weakness, and they did everything to conceal this deficiency. So they hid their flaw by conforming to the majority, but it had longer-range consequences for themselves.

Although all of the subjects had initially stated that they preferred independence to conformity, a majority of them didn’t remain independent. They both acted against the truth and their values. Another interesting point was that the conforming group thought they had conformed less than they really had.

In an extended version of the same experiment, Asch found that bigger majorities were capable of creating stronger conformity. A compelling finding was that if the subject saw that even one person before him/her disagreed with the majority, the test subject would be encouraged to do so, too.

It indicates the power of even one person having the same idea as us. It empowers us to proceed to express our opinion even if it is contrary to that of the majority.

Common Questions about the Theory of Conformity and its Experimental Background

Q: What is Solomon Asch known for?

Solomon Asch was a Polish psychologist who experimented with the concept of humans’ ability to think and act independently. The results of his study revealed that people changed their ideas based on those of celebrities or their peers.

Q: What did Solomon Asch conclude?

Solomon Asch extended the study with a bigger population. He found that the bigger the majority, the stronger its effect in creating conformity.

Q: Who came up with the theory of conformity?

Solomon Asch contributed to the theory of conformity in 1951. He studied the effect of the majority on shaping or changing people’s opinions. He found that people were willing to follow the majority, although they knew it would be wrong.

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